COLUMN: Search for Grace shows community’s true nature

As Chilliwack searches for missing woman, a writer looks back 61 years at a similar story

My late Grandma Peters was a sometime poet, and when I was a teenager I was tasked with typesetting years of her yellow foolscap scribblings into a word processor to be published.

The poems are mostly sing-songy and quaint, filled with happy musings of the nature that she always surrounded herself with. Others filled with longing and sadness as she recalled lean days growing up on farms. I would have forgotten most of them if it weren’t for my own, lovingly signed copy that sits on my bookshelf so many decades later.

But one poem has always stuck with me and she titled it The Search for Cindy Lou.

As I was walking the side of Ashwell Road earlier this week, looking for any clue to help find the missing 86-year-old Grace Baranyk, I thought of this poem and my grandmother. I dug out her book, My Heart Sings Now and Then (Helen Peters Sklarchinsky) and thumbed through until I found it.

READ MORE: Search continues for missing elderly woman in Chilliwack

Sure enough, her words describing the loss of a little girl in Willow River, B.C. (north of Prince George) in September 1958 are eerily similar to what we’ve seen taking place here in Chilliwack, 61 years later.

“For seven days and seven night, we hunted through the brush. Three thousand searchers combed the land, the town was in a hush,” she wrote.

There are lines about the media appealing for help, dogs tracking Cindy Lou’s scent, tragedy on the faces of searchers, and hugging loved ones a bit tighter. But overall, her poem is about the warmth of a community when everyone comes together and puts in small and huge efforts alike. From making sandwiches for searchers, or treading through grasses until your feet are sore, or travelling from nearby communities to assist, the two disappearances are strikingly similar.

I got a little choked up as we walked along the ditch, overwhelmed by the massive task at hand and how impossible it all seems to find Grace. I thought of my own grandma, and her words, and the pain she felt even in her old age over this loss of a community member.

Cindy Lou MacLean, the daughter Gerry and Gladys MacLean and the granddaughter of Rose Crabtree (my grandma’s dear friend) was never found. She noted in her book that she hoped publishing it would somehow reconnect the family.

I don’t imagine that it did, but it does illustrate the best of the human condition. Like Willow River was then, Chilliwack is a wonderful community now, and Grace’s disappearance has been a bittersweet reminder that together we can at least attempt great things. When I visited the search command centre on the weekend, I saw the panic in people’s eyes, the pure desire to get out and turn over every rock to find a woman they didn’t even know. This is humanity at its finest.

It’s also been a chance for all of us who have helped in the search to appreciate our Chilliwack Search and Rescue team for all the time they put in, and for the heavy toll these searches must take on them. We can empathize with them, knowing how diverse a city landscape really is. We know the feeling of going home without having found that person.

It’s not an easy feeling, and it wasn’t a fun lesson to learn. But as I read and re-read my grandmother’s recollection of throwing her own baby into the car to drive from Prince George to Willow River to search for Cindy Lou herself, I realize how much I miss her tenacity and heart. I realize how much I am like her. I realize how little we have all changed.

And even though it’s been 20 years since she was here with us, I feel that we are connected, somehow, through the pain of not being able to help someone, and through the power of telling a story that will last for years to come.

And just as she wrote her poem in the hopes of reuniting the MacLeans, I am writing in hopes of finding Grace.


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